Pattern recognition for tech comm at #TCUK11

Our presentation “Pattern recognition for technical communicators” by Chris Atherton and myself at TCUK11 was well-received and brought “Ah-ha moments a-go-go” according to one tweet. Read how it went or download the slides in PDF by clicking on the title image.

Link to PDF slides: Pattern recognition for tech comm

How the session came about

The session (see the abstract) got its start when I met Chris at last year’s TCUK where she spoke about “Everything you always wanted to know about psychology (and how it relates to technical communication) … but were afraid to ask”. She didn’t really talk about pattern recognition, and I didn’t really know what it was, but I had a notion this might be good for another presentation. I contacted Chris, she thought it was a great idea, and so over the year, we came up with this baby.

"Only Chris Atherton can have a picture of a dog's bum in her #TCUK11 presentation and make it relevant." - @robocolumn

And we brought the baby to TCUK11. 24 hours before our talk, Chris and I attended Karen Mardahl‘s and CJ Walker‘s fireside chat-like session “Content strategy year 1: a tale from the trenches“.  Their dialogue format really appealed to us, we decided to replace some of the scripted moments with more informal dialogue – and the baby had two godmothers.

Then we attended Andrew Lightheart‘s “How to be a riveting speaker” (more on that in my previous post) after which we couldn’t very well present something with reams of text-ridden slides. So we threw out most of the text slides – and the baby had a godfather.

By now, it was still the same content, but quite a different presentation. After all the tweaking, we didn’t have a measurement whether it filled the allotted 40 minutes or was longer…

How it went, a view from the lectern

Chris and I met in the auditorium, set up, added some last minute changes. Checking the watch: 2 minutes to go. Looking up: We had filled the place, a good 100 people were keen to recognise a pattern or two…

Karen introduced us, and off we went. I had decided to be extranervous because the session was being filmed and preserved (is my collar right?) – but I completely forgot!

"By creating and following patterns you help your reader understand..." - @dfarb

Through all the changes and tweaks, we had come to know the material so intimately that it seemed to flow quite smoothly. The omitted text slides were actually a relief, because we could focus on the story and the examples, without having to vindicate each and every sentence. We had picked out stories and examples which were easier to tell than some of the concepts we had thrown out.

Karen’s warning of 15 minutes left came around the time I had roughly estimated. We had to leave out the communal brainstorm of more examples and applications, but everything else fit in.

The feedback after the session was very kind and encouraging. I’m glad and proud if we presented something meaningful to our peers.

The slides

The slides are not the actual presentation we showed, but a variation with more text, so they work a little better as a self-contained slide show without the soundtrack.  Click on the image above to display or download. The video by the TCUK crew is forthcoming.

Chris and I sincerely thank the TCUK organisers for inviting us, our peer presenters for valuable inspiration, all attendees for helpful feedback, intentional or not, before and after the session!

Feel free to leave a comment, whether you were there or are merely curious what it’s all about!

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Andrew Lightheart’s “Riveting Speaker” at #TCUK11

Technical Communication UK 2011 balanced sessions about industry standard methods (such as personas and minimalism) and about seemingly marginal topics which turned out to be highly relevant and “fresh”.

Wednesday’s coma slot right after lunch fell to Andrew Lightheart and “How to be a riveting speaker“. And Andrew excelled beautifully, for two reasons:

  • Andrew is a professional who’s helping specifically IT people to become better presenters.
  • He walks the talk. He lives his own advice, so his presentation was not just an example, it was an embodiment of how to get your point across.

Andrew shared five things which, in his experience, make a good speaker:

  1. A presentation is neither a document, nor a performance, so:
    • Don’t write out your soundtrack and read out your slides. Limit slides to what you cannot describe quickly, pictures, charts, etc.
    • Don’t try to perform, you just set yourself up for unnecessary stress and failure, unless you are a regular, seasoned performance.
  2. A presentation is a conversation, even if the presenter does most of the talking. Get into conversational mode, and you’ll be more comfortable, more personable – and get your points across better.
  3. Stay relevant by focusing on what you want your listeners to do. That is your outcome, and your major points should lead towards it.
  4. Be warm: Connect by sharing (ordinary, personal) stories. And for a pause, in a story or between two points, shut up. Silence is fine. Your threshold to move on is reliably slower than that of your listeners.
  5. Slow down. Speak clearly. It anchors you, and you can listen to yourself. – This point especially resonated with me: I sing in a choir and MC during concerts. When we perform in churches, I have to speak very slowly and clearly because of the reverb. It’s a good and humbling exercise. Try it: Take a friend, find an empty church, stand on opposite ends and to tell him or her something… 🙂

In the subsequent Q&A session, Andrew answered our questions. Most useful to me were these tips:

  • Reformulate highly specific questions to repeat them (many listeners may not have heard it…) and so they stay generally relevant, then answer them.
  • Talk to an individual person in the audience. There is no crowd, there’s only the individual, 400 times…
  • A good general template for a presentation is to spend the first 15-20% on the elephants in the room and to spark your listeners’ curiosity. Then make a point and back it up by a story. Repeat point + story 3-5 times. Close by leading towards your outcome, which is what you want your listeners to do after your presentation.

– Andrew’s session was very relevant and quite influential for me. I heard it 20 hours before Chris and I were due with our own presentation. We were both there and couldn’t very well go ahead with our document of dozens of slides with bullets and text.

So rather than doing a run-through, we took out most text slides, leaving the pictures and examples and the bullets with big points. But it worked very well, and was very well received. So I can confidently say that Andrew’s tips actually work – even if it’s only your second presentation at a conference as it was for me! 🙂

Thanks, Andrew!